Whatever you say about it, there is one thing about practicing law. Each day puts you in contact with new scenarios and different equations. I feel that this is what has kept me hooked my job.
But it is not as though I am always able to sit in my office and dole out timely advice and prescribe prudent courses of action to anyone with a problem. On the contrary, there have been several times when all my legal training, all my experience picked up along the way, has been absolutely useless – when I could only listen helplessly as someone poured out his woes to me.
Padmanabhan was one such person.
I met him first as the committee member in charge of collecting subscription dues for our building association. A plump, pleasant man, he had no difficulty in making me cough up my arrears. Over the years, I got to know him reasonably well. He ran a furniture shop on the ground floor of the building along with a partner. The business was doing well and he had risen quite high from the humble background he came from. He lived with his family in the house he had saved for and built. His son had begun helping him in the business.
All said and done, Padmanabhan had reason to be happy.
And then one day I heard that his son was dead, that he had committed suicide. The poor man, I thought, what a terrible thing to happen. I wanted to go visit him, but I didn’t know how to face Padmanabhan.
But about three weeks later, I had to, when he came to my office.
He looked a wreck. Gray stubble on his chin. Eyes red, dark circles around them. He was fidgeting in his chair, fiddling with the paperweight on the table, constantly looking around. I muttered my condolences, knowing well that nothing I said could ever take away his sorrow
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‘Vakkeele, we want to make a will, my wife and I’ he said. His voice was low and he spoke slowly, as though it took a great effort for the words in his mind to reach his tongue.
‘That is not a problem’ I said. I was relieved. This was something I could do. ‘If you tell me your wishes, I can get down to it. What property do you own?’
‘I want to leave my share in the business to my partner. The house – I want it to go to a charity….’
‘It is in your name?’ I enquired, scribbling the details onto a writing pad.
‘No, I own half. My wife owns the other half’
‘OK, so I will do it this way – if you die before her, your share in the house will go to your wife. If she expires first, her share will come to you. After both of you pass on, it will go to the charity you specify’
There was something in the tone of his voice that made me look up.
‘I want you to draft a will in which the property goes to the charity immediately..after we both die’
‘That is exactly what I meant. After both of you die, it will…’
‘No. There needn’t be any clause by which it goes to either of us first. Let it go straight to the charity’
‘But that can’t be done. There is no possibility that both of you will die at the same time, unless you have an accident or…..’
Slowly, a horrible thought came to me.
Oh my God! Are they planning to go together? A double suicide pact? Are they actually thinking of it? It cant be!
‘I am sorry, Padmanabhan. I can’t draft you a will like that. I am trying to understand what is in your mind…don’t think like that, please. Discard any such thoughts. What you need now is not a lawyer. Let me find you a good psychologist.’
He looked at me with those bloodshot eyes and asked ‘Do you know why my son died?’
I could say nothing. What could justify a young man’s suicide? How could he just leave his parents like that and go, whatever be the reason that pushed him to the brink? At that moment, I could feel nothing but contempt for that selfish youth.
‘He was a good boy, my only son. Did well in college, wanted to study more. But I insisted that he join me in my business. After all, I did everything for him, didn’t I? Once he began work, I slowly eased out of field sales and left it to him, so that he wouldn’t feel bored in the showroom. I shouldn’t have, now that I think about it…
He was the light of our lives. All the neighbours used to remark about how happy a family we were. Such happiness can’t last. I should have known.
Whenever he did anything wrong, I would tease him saying that he wasn’t yielding any returns. No Returns, I would shout at him, instead of raising you, I should have invested in some shares instead… and he would just smile and say that some day he would be my best investment. It became a standing joke between us – No Returns…’
He stifled a sudden sob and took out a handkerchief to wipe away the tears which were now flowing freely from his eyes. I could see the great effort it took him to collect himself and speak again without quavering.
‘He got into an affair. An older woman. I don’t know how or when. Our neighbor saw them together and told me. I confronted him and he confessed. I scolded him, warned him. My wife pleaded with him not to go to her. And he promised not to…
But he was in too deep. When she called him to her house, my poor boy couldn’t resist going. What was her hold on him, I wonder?
Oh my poor boy… they caught him with her. A gang of the local bullies. They had been planning it for some time. Dragged him out of the house and beat him up. Jeered and taunted him in front of everyone…’
Moral policing. Bloody moral policing, raising its ugly head.
‘He never came back. How could he? We had told him not to go see her, hadn’t we? He couldn’t face us, that is why he took a room in a lodge in town and…
My wife still waits for him, do you know that? Keeps his dinner hot and ready for him and sits on the verandah, keeping on asking me why he is late. What can I do for her? I have told her again and again that he is dead, that he will never come back…you know, the joke he and I shared? Well, it came true. No Returns…he never will now..’
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He did not say anything for quite a long time after that and I didn’t either. Then I began the process of trying to convince him that he and his wife had a long and useful life ahead of them, that they should perpetuate their lost son’s memory by starting a charity for other young men who faced such perilous situations or some other worthy cause. I did the best I could, using all the skills of persuasion at my disposal.
When he left, I thought I had prevailed upon him to come back with his wife in a couple of days while I enquired about a good psychologist. I gave him the number of a suicide counseling centre and asked him to talk to them.
He did tell me before he left that he had no intention of doing anything drastic. But I still felt uneasy about him.
I made it a point to tell his partner about what Padmanabhan was going through. He told me he also knew it and promised to keep an eye on him to see that nothing untoward happened. I made enquiries and got a short list of good psychologists who might be able do something for him. I called up the suicide counseling centre, gave them his number and asked them to call him. I called him a couple of times, but he did not answer the phone or call back.
And I waited for Padmanabhan.
He never kept that appointment. Two days later, Padmanabhan and his wife hanged themselves.
It still haunts me. Was there anything else I could have done? Was I to blame in any way? Didn’t I care enough? Had the sordid side of human nature, which I have seen quite a lot of over the years, made me indifferent to his plight?
I don’t know. All I can do is curse that gang of hooligans, who took it upon themselves to teach moral lessons to a pair of lovers, who had done more than just break up a relationship that did not meet their approval. They had robbed doting parents of their beloved son and driven them into the depths of despair, to the ultimate end. They had destroyed an entire family – a family that was happy and cheerful, a family that had a lot more to look forward to in life, a family that had made the world a good place to live in.
No Returns, indeed. How true!